Anti-immigrant attacks spur security crackdown in South Africa

Authorities are cracking down on the perpetrators of a series of xenophobic attacks that left at least 12 people dead, Police Minister Bheki Cele has said.

The police arrested 639 people so far, Cele told reporters Monday in Johannesburg, the nation’s economic hub where unrest flared again a day earlier. He conceded there was "anti-foreign sentiment" within the country.

The clashes began after a South African taxi driver was allegedly shot dead August 27 by a suspected Nigerian drug dealer in the capital, Pretoria. Scores of foreign-owned shops were looted and torched in the ensuing violence. The attacks spread to Johannesburg last week, leaving 10 people dead and more than 50 shops and several vehicles destroyed.

After a brief lull, the violence resumed in Johannesburg on Sunday. Police used stun grenades and rubber bullets to battle protesters armed with knives and sticks seeking to drive African migrants out of the city. At least two more people died. Calm had been restored by Monday morning, according to the police.

South Africa has Africa’s most-industrialised economy and attracts many residents of poorer nations on the continent who relocate in search of a better life. Their increased prevalence in several poor areas has sparked resentment among locals, who see them as competitors for jobs, business opportunities and affordable housing.

Impact on businesses

The country has seen sporadic attacks on migrants, including Nigerians and Sudanese, the worst of which occurred in 2008 when about 60 people were killed and more than 50 000 forced from their homes. Another seven people died in similar attacks in 2015.

The latest outbreak of violence has outraged other African governments and sparked retaliatory attacks on South African-linked business in Nigeria including MTN, the continent’s biggest mobile operator.

Four MTN franchise stores in Nigeria, which are owned by Nigerians, were damaged and the Johannesburg-based company is helping rebuild them, Chief Executive Officer Rob Shuter told reporters Monday. MTN is concerned about the long-term effect the xenophobic attacks were having on investor sentiment, he said.

Nigeria will begin evacuating some of its citizens who’ve asked to leave South Africa to escape the violence, Punch newspaper reported. At least 400 Nigerians registered with the Nigerian diplomatic mission in South Africa to return home, the Lagos-based newspaper reported, citing Nigeria’s consul-general in Johannesburg, Godwin Adama.

The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation hasn’t been notified of the evacuation plans, spokesperson Clayson Monyela said by phone from Pretoria. Calls to the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria seeking comment weren’t answered.

President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the latest round of attacks and called on law-enforcement agencies to deal firmly with those responsible.

The "government will not allow sporadic lawlessness and violence to disrupt the safety and livelihoods of millions of South Africans and the majority of foreign nationals in our country who are law-abiding," he said in a statement.

"Lawlessness is a crime against our prosperity and stability as a nation, and those who want to upset our public order must expect to face the gravest impact of the law."

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